RAKVERE, Estonia -- At Rakvere's highest point lays a castle. For centuries it stood as a military stronghold and center of commerce as it passed hands from one kingdom to another. Today the historical landmark attracts thousands of tourists eager to relive the Middle Ages.
None would have imagined scores of modern Soldiers charging up the hills, but that's what happened when the Estonian Defense League hosted the second annual Admiral Pitka Recon Challenge Aug. 6-9.
Named after the Estonian Defense League's founder, Sir Johan Pitka, the military competition featured 26 four-person teams from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, Sweden and the United States as they completed multiple objectives along a winding 81-mile route through the Estonian countryside.
"The Pitka Challenge roots are found in the Erna Raid," said Brig. Gen. Meelis Kiili, commander of the Estonian Defense League, a paramilitary organization consisting of more than 20,000 volunteers. The Erna Raid is an international military-sporting competition commemorating the actions of the Erna long-range reconnaissance group of Estonian volunteers in the summer of 1941. "However, the Pitka Challenge is more complex than its predecessor. The Erna Raid always had the same route and tasks, but each Pitka Challenge moves around Estonia and offers a wider variety of events."
Approximately 600 paratroopers from the brigade have been deployed to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve to demonstrate commitment to NATO obligations and sustain interoperability with allied forces.
After the close relationship they've forged with their Estonian allies, they were a natural choice to represent the U.S. in the competition.
"[The 173rd Airborne Bde.] chose us because we had the most training and experience in Long Range Surveillance," said Pfc. Joshua Perez, a health care specialist assigned to Troop C, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment. "We didn't have much time to prepare as we had just returned from the field [in Latvia], but that didn't make it any less of an honor to have represented the U.S.A."
Another team representing the U.S. Army came from the Maryland National Guard, which has established a 20-year partnership with Estonia's armed forces through the State Partnership Program.
"About two months ago we got word that we would participate in the Admiral Pitka [Recon] Challenge," said Spc. Jordan C. Ficken, a scout observer for the Long Range Surveillance Team, Troop C, 1st Squadron, 58th Cavalry Regiment, Maryland National Guard. "Our command preferred to send a single team rather than handpicked individuals, and it favored sending us due to our skillsets. It was good decision."
"The Estonian Defense League offers a terrific link between the Estonian military and its people," said Lt. Col. Geoffrey W. Wright, Army Attaché, U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia. "This is a great opportunity for the Maryland National Guard to partner with fellow citizen Soldiers from other countries."
After an opening ceremony held Aug. 6 at Rakvere's Estonian Independence War monument, the teams donned their gear and marched quickly through swamps and forests to find their checkpoints.
"We intentionally set up the checkpoints many kilometers between each other," said Kiili, a native of Rakvere. "We further tested their stamina and navigation skills by penalizing teams who did not reach a checkpoint by a certain time."
Rough terrain and long distances were not the only factors that hindered movement. As teams navigated through miles of marshland in total darkness, Estonian and American Soldiers playing as opposing forces continually harassed the competitors.
"Each team member had 10 laminated tickets," said Staff Sgt. David A. Scott, leader of the American opposing forces team currently serving as a platoon sergeant for Troop B, 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Bde.. "Competitors had to give up a ticket if they were killed or captured. Once they lost all 10 tickets, they were out [of the competition]."
The event also presented a challenge for the opposing force, or OPFOR.
"Playing as OPFOR wasn't just fun and games," said Kiili. "We didn't provide them the teams' locations. They needed to assess the situation and make sound military decisions. It was great training for both sides."
Supervised by Estonian Defense League members and a multinational team of evaluators, each checkpoint represented a military-oriented task from setting up explosives and calling for artillery to conducting reconnaissance and treating casualties.
"Some checkpoints were unfamiliar to us as some procedures are different between the U.S. and NATO," said Ficken. "We overcame them by applying our reconnaissance and surveillance skills."
"The Pitka Challenge is more than just physical fitness," said Kiili. "They need to exercise their knowledge as well."
That knowledge reached beyond the physical battlefield and into cyberspace as teams safeguarded hard drives and extracted intel from laptops.
"The world is evolving and the Pitka Challenge must evolve with it," said Kiili. "This is the first time we've included cyber warfare tasks … The teams didn't need a hacker's background to complete them, but they had to understand the role of computers on the modern battlefield."
Nearly every competitor collapsed in exhaustion moments after crossing the finish line. Training and discipline helped the Americans recover in time to shake hands with Kiili.
"All the teams did exceptionally well, even the ones that dropped out," said Kiili. "They will leave here knowing they were part of something that they will remember for years."
"It was a grueling physical and mental test, and we now know for certain that we have the strength, endurance, intelligence and confidence to pass it," said Ficken.
The Estonian Defense League recognized the teams' accomplishments by hosting an award ceremony inside Rakvere Castle later that afternoon. There, Lt. Col. Kyle Reed, commander of Task Force Sabre, pinned Army Achievement Medals on the 173rd Airborne Bde. team members.
"This was above and beyond anything else I've done," said Ficken. "It was hard, but it was fun."
The Maryland National Guard and the 173rd Airborne Brigade placed 18th and 21st, respectively. Both teams pledged to teach their successors how to prepare for the next Admiral Pitka Recon Challenge. Meanwhile, competitors, organizers and spectators alike reflect on the event's enduring impact.
"This was a great example of our close partnership with our NATO allies," said Scott, a native of Cornish, Maine. "There's a strong possibility that we will be working with these same Soldiers in some unknown theater in the future."
"I appreciate the Americans for training here and expressing the same values [the Estonians] cherish," said Kiili. "Our partnership is more than just about politics, it's about the bonds we make as brothers-in-arms."